For decades now, opera directors in Europe and the United States have felt licensed to revise operas to conform to their political agendas. These directors did so through wildly incongruous stagings that updated an opera’s plot to modern times and introduced progressive totems that would have been unfathomable to the opera’s original creator. Such directorial interventions left the libretto (i.e., the text) intact, however. Now even that cordon sanitaire between the structure of a work and an interpreter’s political preferences has been breached.
In February 2022, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hosted a production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, produced by Heartbeat Opera. The opera is an Enlightenment paean to freedom and to marital love. In Beethoven’s version of the opera, a wife disguises herself as a male prison guard to free her husband from a Spanish fortress; at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fidelio became a Black Lives Matter critique of mass incarceration.
In the Met’s Fidelio, a BLM activist (the updated husband from Beethoven’s Fidelio) had been writing a doctoral dissertation on the 13th Amendment, and investigating corrupt “fascists” in the criminal-justice system. In retaliation, racist cops shoot him, and a racist warden of a super-maximum prison throws him into solitary confinement. The activist’s wife, unable to persuade any lawyers to take up her husband’s case pro bono, goes undercover as a female correctional officer in her husband’s prison. This change from a male to a female disguise allows for a pleasingly homoerotic revision to the plot. In the original opera, a prison guard’s daughter falls in love with the new “male” employee, echoing Lady Olivia’s fruitless infatuation for the disguised Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In the Met Museum’s Fidelio, the prison guard’s daughter is a lesbian; her black father encourages his daughter to court the new black female assistant.
In the current political and artistic environment, Fidelio was a Black Lives Matter manifesto waiting to happen. What made the Met Museum’s production noteworthy was that the revision did not occur exclusively through the staging; Heartbeat Opera rewrote the spoken dialogue as well. (That dialogue was delivered in English, while the arias and ensembles remained in their original German.) The activist’s wife complains that the “real conspiracy” was not the one for which her husband was detained, but rather the “suppression of immigrants and people of color” in the United States. The super-maximum prison contains people “whose only mistake was being poor and black.”
The imprisoned activist rails against his black jailer: “You are complicit in a corrupt system that oppresses our people. I see in you a field Negro.” The white prison warden reveals the depths of his racism by announcing that if the activist really “wanted to help his community, he would tell them to stop burning down their neighborhoods and to pull up their bootstraps.” Such an invocation of personal responsibility is—in the revisionist’s mind—a surefire sign of white supremacy. None of these lines are related to the original libretto.
The only reason the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted Fidelio was the Black Lives Matter gloss. Without it, the museum’s leadership would have had no interest in the work. The production provided the museum with a racial-justice twofer, however, since opening night featured a post-performance discussion between five “social justice advocates” on how to dismantle “current systems of incarceration through the abolitionist movement.” The Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights at Columbia University sponsored the discussion. Such a panel may have once seemed tangential to the mission of an art museum; in the post–George Floyd era, such racial-justice advocacy has become central to curating and programming.
Heartbeat Opera did preserve one aspect of the original Fidelio: the arias and ensembles were, by and large, textually intact, if sometimes compressed or cut to shorten the running time. The sublime quartet Mir ist so wunderbar was reduced to a trio, due to the elimination of a character who would have complicated the lesbian subplot. The overture (Beethoven ultimately wrote four) and early arias were also cut, replaced by mechanical noise and a wordless enactment of a black male being gunned down.
On April 7th, 2022, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by outgoing conductor Marin Alsop, took textual intervention one step further. A poem by Baltimore-based rapper Wordsmith replaced Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Wordsmith explained his goals in the rewriting: to use “present-day social issues to highlight the need for positive reinforcement. Encouraging gender equality, cultural acceptance, and living a purpose-driven life are worldly topics I sought to shine a light on during the writing process.”
The result was a radical change of register. Instead of Schiller’s opening stanza:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
[Joy, bright spark of divinity, Daughter of Elysium, Drunk with fire we tread Thy sanctuary!]
Live and love with open mind let our cultures intertwine. Dig deep down, show what you’re made of, set the tone it’s time to shine. We must fight for equal rights and share some common courtesy. While pursuing all your dreams spread your joy from sea to sea.
In Beethoven’s excerpt for the Ninth Symphony, Schiller’s poem moves ecstatically in its final strophe into the heavens:
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt! Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
[World, do you know your Creator? Seek Him in the starry canopy! Above the stars must He dwell.]
Wordsmith concludes his Ode to Joy with a leaden admonition—a Hallmark card version of a diversity training session:
Positive vibes for an ode to joy! Rise, oh rise, be the voice of change, We must show more empathy.
Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin on Christmas Day, 1989. The Berlin Wall had come down the previous month. To mark the liberation, Bernstein changed one word of Schiller’s text: Freude (joy) became Freiheit (freedom). This substitution was regarded as so momentous as to put Bernstein momentarily on the defensive: “I feel this is a heaven-sent moment to sing Freiheit wherever the score indicates the word Freude,” he explained. “If ever there was a historic time to take an academic risk in the name of human joy, this is it, and I am sure we have Beethoven’s blessing.” Bernstein’s one-word interpolation was still being talked about long after the 1989 concert. The New York Times observed in 1998 that “Bernstein, who in life got away with nothing and everything, boldly changed freude, the joy in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, to freiheit, freedom.”
But now, the wholesale elimination of Schiller’s ode, so integral to Beethoven’s score, requires no justification at all. In fact, Wordsmith’s replacement poem is just one of several commissioned by conductor Marin Alsop for what Alsop hoped would be an attention-getting tour “in partnership with 10 orchestras at leading venues on six continents” in 2020. (Alsop’s so-called “All Together” tour, to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns.) In London, the poem O Human by British poet Anthony Anaxagorou was to have displaced Schiller. Where Wordsmith was clear, if trite, Anaxagorou was mannered and opaque. Listeners were urged to “Speak up those who’ve held the tremble.” The poet asked rhetorically: “Can you see us hurtling forward/Tying bells like vows to skin?” (To which the answer can only be: “No, we can’t!”)
The most technically adept of the Schiller substitutes came from former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. Smith concluded her ode, planned for an abortive Carnegie Hall performance, with a plug for sustainability:
Battered planet, home of billions, Our long shadow stalks your face. All we’ve fractured, all we’ve stolen, All we’ve sought blind to your grace.
The rewritings go beyond Beethoven. On November 5th, 2022, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, with another new text by Wordsmith. Stravinsky’s 1918 work pairs a seven-member instrumental ensemble with three non-singing actors. The actors narrate the story of a soldier persuaded by the devil to exchange his modest but beloved possessions for a deceptive promise of wealth. The score is a concentrated gem of modernism, with protean time signatures and rhythms, acid harmonies, and an eclectic range of musical influences, including klezmer music and ragtime. Wordsmith retold the story from the “perspective of a Black American soldier during the Vietnam War,” as the publicity materials explained.
These modern bastardizations have 18th- and 19th-century precedent. Singers notoriously inserted their preferred arias into opera scores, however unrelated to the opera at hand. Throughout much of the 19th century, publishers and conductors “corrected” Beethoven’s symphonies, which violated academic rules of harmony. In Paris, Mozart’s operas were rewritten to match French tastes in musical theater. The composer and critic Hector Berlioz described how a German composer “fixed” The Magic Flute for a Parisian performance:
He tacked a few bars on to the end of the overture (the overture to The Magic Flute!), made a bass aria out of the soprano line of one of the choruses, likewise adding a few bars of his own composition; removed the wind instruments from one scene and put them into another, altered the vocal line and the whole character of the accompaniment in Sarastro’s sublime aria; manufactured a song out of the Slaves Chorus ‘O cara armonia’; converted a duet into a trio; and, as if The Magic Flute were not enough to sate his harpy’s appetite, gorged himself on Titus and Don Giovanni … After that, need one add that in the hands of this master, the famous ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’—that explosion of licentious energy in which the whole character of the Don is summed up—duly reappeared as a trio for two sopranos and bass.
Berlioz laid down his rule of artistic respect:
No, no, no, a million times no! You musicians, you poets, prose-writers, actors, pianists, conductors whether of third or second or even first rank, you do not have the right to meddle with a Shakespeare or a Beethoven, in order to bestow on them the blessings of your knowledge and taste.
It took a century, but Berlioz’s lonely crusade for fidelity to a composer’s intentions was eventually victorious—at least with regard to the notes and words on the page, if not, in recent years, in regard to staging. It is not a cultural advance to return to artistic revisionism. (To be sure, topical jokes and references are sometimes inserted into operettas today, but those works occupy a different place in our culture.)
Beethoven chose Schiller’s Ode, not Wordsmith’s, for what would prove his final symphony. That is sufficient reason to keep the original pairing. But there is a more self-interested reason as well. In revising works to match contemporary sensibilities, we diminish, not expand, our human possibilities. No one would write Schiller’s Ode to Joy today. That is precisely why it should be performed intact. Its elevated rhetoric belongs to a lost aesthetic universe of romantic idealism, classical allusion, and exacting formal craft. It speaks to a now-alien way of being in the world that we can nevertheless dimly sense through close engagement with its language. Likewise, the original text of The Soldier’s Tale hearkens back to the unsettling world of Russian folktales, with their mysterious strangers, impenetrable forests, and diabolical traps. That folk literature expresses what it was like to be human before Enlightenment science and the conquest of nature; it captures primal fears that even now we may not have transcended.
We are awash in opportunities to hear rappers and to condemn alleged police brutality. Our means for entering the past, however, are finite and available only through works of art that have survived into the present. It is narcissistic to demand that these precious vehicles of bygone form and feeling be dragooned into speaking in our language, about our contemporary concerns. And it is delusional to think that junking Schiller for Wordsmith or Beethoven for Black Lives Matter will increase the “diversity” of the classical music audience.
An advocate of rewritings like the All Together project might respond that no lasting damage has been done to the host works. The next performance can revert to the work’s original structure; many future performances will do so. But each rewriting legitimates the idea that understanding a foreign idiom, especially a rarified one, asks too much of an audience. Such revisions imply that we should not try to stretch beyond the boundaries of our circumscribed lives into a radically different aesthetic milieu. Moreover, most are animated by the hermeneutics of suspicion (philosopher Paul Ricœur’s term for the demystifying impulse that took over the humanities in the late 20th century). They see in past works of art only oppression and illegitimate privilege. Such deconstructive readings provide an excuse for ignorance and a pretext for prejudice. Even without that deconstructive agenda, however, rewriters and revisionists destroy the precious link between present and past that is the primary means of transmitting civilization and of keeping our minds open to beauty.